The politics of sugar: why your government lies to you about this disease-promoting ingredient

Thursday, July 21, 2005 by: Dani Veracity

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Most people know about the massive sugar intake in the United States. Despite the warnings of dental and healthcare professionals, the average American consumes 150 pounds of sugar per year. However, not everyone knows about the hand the sugar industry, or "Big Sugar," has in nutrition guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Fewer still know of sugar companies' stronghold on U.S. import taxes, which puts $1 billion in excess profits into the pockets of American sugar barons. While the white stuff doesn't seem as dangerous as tobacco, the two industries employ similar political and research tactics to keep the dangers of their products out of the minds of the public.

Obesity claims more lives and drains more of the healthcare budget than smoking. Obesity is linked to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. It inflates healthcare costs by 36 percent and medication costs by 77 percent. Not only are people suffering from the negative effects of sugar; they're paying big money to be treated for these debilitating diseases that result from it.

Given the obvious stress on hospitals, the U.S. Surgeon General has urged the nation to cut back on sugar and fats. Dr. Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health insists that "any plan dealing with obesity has to take on sugar."

What are the major corroborators in America's sugar consumption? Sweet drinks and sodas. One study noted that soft drink consumption has risen by 61 percent in adults from 1977 to 1997, while it has more than doubled in children and adolescents from 1977–1978 to 1994–1998. As a result, many parents are trying to get soft drink machines taken out of public and private schools. In fact, New Jersey recently prohibited snack and soda vendors from all school grounds.

What has the sugar industry done in response to the obvious dangers their product poses? They do what any industry does: Hide the facts, then fabricate their own. One trick up Big Sugar's sleeve is hiding nutritional information on food and drink packages. In order to consume 150 pounds of sugar per year, Americans have to eat a teaspoon of sugar per hour every 24 hours, seven days a week. Obviously, we don't actually chew on teaspoons of sugar. Instead, many people unknowingly consume food and drinks containing ridiculous amounts of sugar. But don't expect labels to help you determine how much sugar is added. Sugar has all sorts of names: dextrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, corn syrup, maple sugar, honey, invert sugar or malt. In 2002, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to require food manufacturers to clearly label the amount of added sugar. The petition failed. Michael Jacobson, director of CSPI, attributes this to the powerful sugar lobby.

Big Sugar not only hides the real amount of sugar in foods, they also use their influence to mask the health dangers of sugar in dietary guidelines. Marion Nestle in Food Politics describes how vulnerable dietary guidelines are to the sugar industry's political maneuverings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2005 Guidelines were recently rephrased from "limit your intake of added sugars" -- a guideline that has been in place for the past five years -- to "moderate your intake of sugars."

While this change appears harmless at first, a closer look at the definitions of the words "limit" and "moderate" explains why Big Sugar invested so much money into the USDA amendment. "Moderate" denotatively means "not excessive or extreme" or "of medium quality." The revised wording suggests that we should eat some sugar -- that a medium amount of sugar is good for you -- but beware of over-indulgence. "Limit," on the other hand, is a much more decisive word. To limit sugar intake implies that we're already eating too much and we need to cut it out of our diet. These slight rhetorical nuances aren't a mistake. Big Sugar poured big money into masking the dangers of American sugar intake.

How did Big Sugar engineer this change? The rich sugar barons certainly weren't knocking on the doors of USDA scientists. They accomplished all of this with sizable political donations. Between 1997 and 1999, The Flo-Sun sugar company made 21 donations ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 to congressional campaign committees. That's a total of $202,500 to Democrats and $147,500 to Republicans. Those numbers have only gone up in the last five years. During the 2004 election cycle, two Florida sugar companies gave a total of $925,000 to election coffers. With so much money pouring into the hands of lawmakers, it's no wonder they're willing to overlook a little word change in USDA regulations.

Another powerful tool wielded by Big Sugar: Skewed science. The World Sugar Research Organization and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) are just two sugar-funded science institutes that stand by their claim that sugar is good for you. Last year these organizations were charged with paying off the Expert Consultation on Carbohydrates in Human Nutrition, effectively botching the World Health Organization's research on sugar and its health effects.

It seems the sugar lobby has much more political clout than most are willing to admit. But how exactly did they become so powerful? Their pervasive influence could be explained by the inflated prices Americans pay for sugar. The government restricts cheap sugar imports into the United States, thereby tripling the price of sugar to US consumers. As a result, Big Sugar earns $1 billion a year in excess profits they otherwise would not have. Where does that money go? I can assure you that it's not paying for America's growing healthcare burden.

The experts speak on the politics of sugar

Dietary guidelines necessarily are political compromises between what science tells us about nutrition and health and what is good for the food industry.
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 441

More recently, a study of the connection between PAC contributions and congressional votes on sugar subsidies indicated that the largest contributions from sugar PACs had gone to members who voted for the subsidies and that the larger the PAC contribution, the more likely the members were to support industry positions. Month-by-month analyses of the history of legislation on sugar and peanut subsidies demonstrate an increase in contributions to both parties just prior to votes. Because PACs give more money to legislators who are more likely to vote for their interests, researchers conclude that PAC…
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 105

Even consumers who read food labels may not realize when sugar is added to products because it comes in forms like high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and maltose. Three years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to require food manufacturers to clearly label the amount of added sugar, but no action has been taken. Michael Jacobson, director of CSPI, attributes the delay to lobbying by the powerful sugar and sweetener industries. The sugar Association lobbied the USDA to change the wording of the current dietary guidelines on sugar, hence consumers are asked to use "moderation" rather than "limit" their sugar intake.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 31

The 1996 law attempted to bar elected officials and their staff from accepting vacations paid for by special-interest groups, but loopholes remained: members of Congress could take trips paid for by corporate lobbyists if the event was sponsored by a political party, was a fact-finding mission, or was a conference at which the member was an invited speaker. In 1996-1997, 87 senators, 356 representatives, and 2,020 of their staff employees took paid trips worth about $8.6 million. The leading recipient of trips paid for by the meat industry, for example, had gone on 26 of them worth $18,550. Two agriculture concerns—the Florida sugar Cane League and the sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida—were ranked 9th (44 trips) and 12th (39 trips), respectively, among the 20 leading sponsors of congressional travel that year.
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 108

In these two instances, financial contributions bought access to government officials and resulted in policies favorable to donors. Given that level of connection, it is understandable that agency officials would not want to do battle over a matter so seemingly trivial as the use of the verb moderate rather than limit in guidelines about sugar consumption. The job of food lobbyists is to make sure that the government (1) does nothing to impede clients from selling more of their products and (2) does as much as possible to create a supportive sales environment. We have seen that they accomplish this goal most effectively through personal contacts established through the revolving door, as well as through financial contributions. In the next chapter, we will see how food companies engage food and nutrition professionals in marketing campaigns by encouraging them to emphasize the health benefits of products or to minimize potentially adverse effects.
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 435

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